What would it be like if a Swede made a classic British spy movie? Well, we found out.
One of the things I liked most about this version of Tinker, Tailor… was that it was a visually convincing portrayal of Britain. The cinema is always in the business of constructing a mythic past or present, and in the UK, there are basically four historical eras in the eyes of the movies. One is Will Shakespeare and before, the age when everything was brown except the crown jewels and the sword blades. Another runs from the deer parks of the 18th century to the 1930s and basically celebrates everything posh. It’s the world of Mary Poppins and a million takes on Jane Eyre. Then there’s Blitz Grim, which runs from the outbreak of war through to the miners’ strike or thereabouts as if the bombs had never stopped falling. And then there’s Shiny World, which picks up in the late Thatcher era and runs through to now.
The problem with this is that the UK is the only European country where the post-war consensus is depicted as looking like shit. I suspect that class is behind this; the people who weren’t rolling in prosperity and unrivalled possibility in those years were exactly the old-fashioned upper middle class that gave us someone like Control as played by John Hurt, a pseudo-academic spook in a studiedly tatty silk near-kimono. He doesn’t dress like that because he’s poor, after all, but because he can. Smiley and his colleagues are much the same, marinating in cod-Oxbridge shabby-library kitsch in chilly flats in Hampstead, plunging into Highgate Ponds, dressing in expensive-but-fashionless tailoring.
But Tomas Alfredson shows early 1970s London as a city with tatty look-and-feel but fleets of brand-new cars (hey! it was the golden era of the British sports car! nobody feels existentially crushed by decline and runs out to buy a MGB roadster!), ruled by a government with uncared-for buildings but a more than generous budget for the technology of spookery and bureaucracy. This suggests he may have read a book or two before starting out. In fact, the intelligence world’s budget is nothing as to Alfredson’s budget for sets – the enormous, hugely detailed archives and secure conference centre are amazingly impressive, and permit him to put the audience in the point of view of a highly classified file making its way through the system.
Of course, London is always like that. There is a long history of new arrivals writing about the noise! and the smog! and the prices! and how do they live like that! and then, in their next letter home, declaring that all their friends had better hurry up as it might not last. These days, Smiley might have moved his skunk-works mole hunt into a Regus serviced-office block in Shoreditch rather than a rotten railway hotel around the old Broad Street station. The paranoia would have to float through the air conditioning in the spirit of J.G. Ballard rather than give the walls uncanny life in that of M.R. James. But it wouldn’t be all that different.
Neither would the politics, in some ways. One reading of the plot is that the loyal British spies and the pro-Soviet moles are in a sort of unconscious conspiracy. The original scheme is to get information from a Hungarian defector that will induce the Americans to share more intelligence with the British. But the moles, who are deliberately providing the British with information to get them to keep the defector case running, also hope that the Americans will be impressed enough to share, so they can get their hands on whatever they do share. After all, the British are deliberately passing information back to the Hungarians to protect the agent’s cover. In what way, then, are their aims actually opposed? The distinction between loyalty and betrayal is a question of the terms-of-trade.
Interestingly, we now know that while John Le CarrÃ©/David Cornwell was writing the book, the whole issue had blown up and the Americans had cut off signals intelligence sharing with the UK over prime minister Edward Heath’s refusal to let SR71 reconnaissance flights over the battles of the Yom Kippur war land at the British base in Cyprus. Specifically, Heath and his foreign minister Alec Douglas-Home were concerned that the Americans would pass the information to the Israelis, forcing the UK to take sides in the conflict. The Americans refused to give this assurance and the landing rights were refused, and the US flew the missions anyway using dozens of air-to-air refuelling tankers. As it happened, the Israelis weren’t being entirely honest with the Americans in exchange for the use of the photos, and the Americans were severely embarrassed, leading them to patch up the row with the UK quickly once it was all over.
So the British and the Russians (including the Hungarians) are willing to go to any lengths in order to influence the Americans. The other big target is of course the British Government, specifically the Treasury and SIS’s parent ministry, the Foreign Office. Ironically, the moles are as keen as the loyal to fight the good bureaucratic fight, and both sides want to do so by scoring off the Americans. If anything they mistrust the mainline civil service even more than they do Karla. There is a brilliant moment when the suspected mole, Alleline, spits at a senior civil servant that “None of your civil servants lost their lives!” – in Britain, the intelligence and diplomatic services are technically “crown servants”, without the independent professional status or final access to the highest peaks of power reserved for the civil service proper.
There are other things that haven’t changed much. Gary Oldman’s diction was so perfectly establishmentarian that I missed the first reference to what sounded like “Pseare” but was of course SERE, the survival, evasion, resistance to interrogation, and escape training course that Donald Rumsfeld’s agents re-purposed to create a wholesale torture capability after 2001.
Some other points…who didn’t love the government minister, very much the motorway-building go-ahead bulldozer of the Heathite Tory imagination, who plays a vigorous bout of squash in his Fred Perrys and immediately afterwards sparks up a gasper? It was also hard to avoid thinking that it was the Cold War that made Britain European, a time of civil service linguists and the BBC World Service. And finally, this is a slow movie, as slow as paranoia, well likened to the Godfather. Time stacks up, thickens, intensifies.